I’ve heard it said that often that the most interesting thing about a story is the part that’s left out. Lately, though, at least when it comes to movies, I’ve found the most fascinating aspect of the film is in what’s been added to the original.
I’m thinking of here of films based on novels, or some other pre-existing story. The written narrative will present the tale one way. But when it is adapted, it will often be embellished – with the goal of making it more exciting on film. And when you look at the embellishments, what’s added sometimes tells another story altogether. A story that is often about the political mood of the country.
The recent film, Arrival, is a case in point. As has been covered by reviewers, the movie is an adaptation of a novella (titled “The Story of Your Life”) by the science fiction writer Ted Chiang. Chiang’s version of this tale is an elegant thought experiment, which explores the implications of a linguistic theory, known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. As I remember it, the idea behind this hypothesis is that the way we communicate radically shapes the way we see reality – so much so, that people speaking different languages live, essentially, in separate worlds.
Chiang’s story enacts this concept beautifully. He imagines a first-contact scenario, where, when the aliens arrive (in the form of ships hovering in the atmosphere) no one can figure out why they’re here – or what they’re saying. The military enlists the help of a linguist to decipher their communications. In doing so (by studying the aliens’ circular writing script), she discovers a non-linear, holistic language, where time, as we know it, doesn’t exist. As she learns this language herself, her own sense of time dissolves, and she sees her own past, present and future, her entire biography, at once.
The film version of this story keeps Chiang’s narrative as its center, and does so quite skillfully. As a word-person myself, it’s a thrill to see the great Amy Adams, as hero, lecture the military brass on linguistic theory – and this, in a sci-fi blockbuster! But as I mentioned, what the movie adds is just as intriguing, especially in light of the 2016 election.
To make Chiang’s cerebral tale play more like an action flick, the movie surrounds it with another story, one involving a world crisis. In it, the Russians and Chinese are also trying to decipher the alien script. Unfortunately, they misinterpret what these beings are writing – thinking instead that the aliens are urging the nations of the world to attack each other.
Outraged, they begin to issue ultimatums, ordering the aliens out of their airspace, and they ready their atomic weapons. Luckily, the sane American linguist talks sense (in a rather dramatic way) to the head of the Chinese military, and saves the day. At this point, the aliens split.
The film ends on a utopian note. Collaborating with linguists from all the world’s nations, Adams’ character publishes a guide to learning the aliens’ language. Presumably, once we all learn its script, we will have a universal language to settle our differences in – and a new, more holistic vision of reality to boot.
The Prediction: Global vs. National
Produced well before November 2016, the film’s political subplot predicts, with great accuracy, the forces that would soon divide the U.S. electorate.
In one corner, there are the angry, suspicious nationalists – in this case, the hotheaded Russians, Chinese and more militant members of the U.S. defense forces. In the other, there are the rational cosmopolitans – Adams’ linguist, her partner, a brilliant physicist played by Jeremy Renner, and the other world’s linguists and scientists (some of whom are persecuted). They urge restraint, and a generally a cool, scientific and enlightened attitude.
The event that sets these two camps into opposition is the same one as that which rocked the recent election: the arrival of the alien other. In the movie, these “others” transgress air space; in contemporary politics, they cross borders.
As one might expect, the way the film sketches out these two sides seems hokey and caricaturist (not to mention a bit chauvinistic, in its portrayal of the U.S. as the center of the world's reason!). But cannot the same be said of our national, political communications? The Democrats promised repentance for their trade-deal friendly past. Yet, as Michael Moore predicted, they were nevertheless stereotyped as globalist and “neoliberal”, because of their track record on such issues.
And when it came to the new “America First” party, you had to wonder about the credibility of their patriotic image and rhetoric, when their candidate went around publicly wishing that the election would be hacked by a foreign power. But, apparently, the nationalistic branding worked well enough.
I wish I could believe that the film, seeing how prescient it was about the this conflict, also offered a way to resolve it. But, here, alas, Arrival seemed to get a bit Pollyanna. For to break such a deadlock, what’s needed is not just a new language – but a new politics altogether.
And that’s not the kind of thing you can get from another world.